This "minimalist" series of exercises is designed to clear the way for daily meditation gently and efficiently. Unlike some of the yoga asana practice popular today, these practices are designed to calm our over-stimulated systems. There are some "strong" postures, such as backbend and shoulderstand, but our attitude and the quality of approach is gentle: asking permission of the body and then letting it move.
Once you become familiar with these exercises, you can do them in twenty minutes so that you still have time for deeper meditation. If you are just getting familiar with these exercises, then you might want to start with a few at first. Spending more time at first can help you cultivate respectful friendship with your body and energies. As you integrate the practice, you can start to add the rest of the series.
These exercises can:
~ Flush out stale energy and help fresh energy flow and shine in us.
~ Help us connect to the lower belly and strengthen the core.
~ Strengthen a sense of stability and relationship to the ground.
~ Clear, support and awaken the spine and the energies there.
In the original text on yoga centuries ago, the sage Patanjali speaks of yoga posture (asana): "there is a posture in which the body feels joys in stillness for a long time." This joyful, vibrant stillness then allows the mind, breath, and energy to quiet down, harmonize, and find a way in towards deep meditation, transformation, and freedom.
Most of the yoga postures we know today were developed centuries after Patanjali to address particular needs in the culture at that time--mainly to stimulate energy in people who were too passive to rouse themselves for meditation. In our current culture, the last thing we need for meditation is more stimulation. Here we want to encourage you to devote time daily to very simple yoga exercises to help cool down our mental chaos and prepare us for going inwards.
Yoga literally means "union." By connecting and listening to the body, we can begin to enter into union of body, mind, energy, intention and spirit. Most of the exercises in this series are simple, but please do not strain your body. Approach unfamiliar exercises with gentleness and care. For example, if you have a delicate or stiff back, you can warm up the back with the twists and cobra, before you do the backward arch.
If you are not sure about an exercise, please ask for help from a yoga instructor or experienced practitioner.
If you already have a yoga sequence that you like, you can combine it with these asanas if you want.
If possible, do these exercises
1) every day
2) in the recommended order;
3) in the morning before having food or drink (though water is okay).
Do the exercises on a flat, padded surface, such as a folded blanket, a firm mattress, or a yoga mat with folded blanket on top or underneath. Some yoga experts recommend that women do not practice yoga asana at all during their menstrual period, and others just advise us to avoid positions "reversed" positions such as shoulder stand. Perhaps each woman can feel carefully for herself each month.
If you do not want to do all the exercises, then the minimum series comprises:
1) first morning breath;
2) knees to abdomen;
3) rocking the boat or bicycle.
4) kneeling forward bend.
Benefits may be felt immediately, but it can easily take months of daily practice to feel the subtle power of these exercises.
(For a simple list of the asana names in order, please go to the bottom of the page.)
1. First morning breath. Breathe out as gently and deeply possible, pulling the belly in and curving the body forward. Then breathe in, floating the heart in oxygen and perhaps opening the chest and arching backwards. Each person's body will look different when doing this. Repeat 20 times, preferably outside in fresh morning air.
2. Sweeping. Stand with legs slightly wider than hip-width apart. If you are over 30 or so, turn your toes towards each other as far as possible without straining your knees, but so that you nearly lose your balance. This will help keep the lower back spacious as the body ages. Put your hands on your hips to open the underarm area.
Close your eyes and tune in as you let your body balance equally on both legs.
If possible, stand facing the sunrise, bringing in a "freshness like the first morning." As you sweep attention throughout the body, also receive the freshness into the whole body, drawing in nourishment, loosening old sediments. If you feel significant negativity on a particular morning, then just skip this exercise for the day and move on to the next one.
Connect to the space behind the spot between the eyebrows. Wait in that connection until you feel a sense of aliveness, breeziness, or buzzing. When this aliveness or vibration can move, then bring it to the top of your head and begin sweeping attention down through the body. You can pause and relax anywhere that you notice extra tension.
First come down the through the head, and then feel the head as a whole.
Then neck, shoulders, down through both arms to the fingertips and back up to the shoulders. If you cannot sweep through both arms at the same time, then you can go sweep first the left and then the right arm. Then continue from the shoulders down through the upper chest and back, and the main body, and then the two legs to the toes. Then with extra attention in the spine, come back up to the shoulders, sweep down the arms and back up again, and come back up through the head.
If the sweeping takes longer than 5 minutes, then you can move your feet into a more comfortable position after 5 minutes.
Give extra time and freshness to the following areas:
~ Under arms.
~ Knees, particularly clearing between the joint and kneecap.
~ In the head, after you sweep back up to the top of the head, return to the place behind the eyebrow center, and try to feel something like a heavy, horizontal curtain inside the head behind the eyes. Gently "pulse" or "wave" this curtain with your attention, as if you were shaking out the curtain. And then breathe out as gently and deeply and possible—pull the belly in as you breathe out.
Initially the sweeping may take longer (up to an hour!), but 5 minutes or so is enough after some practice.
3. Joint Rotations. Stand comfortably. Rotate to lubricate the joints 5 times in both directions. It can be useful to start each rotation slowly and gradually quicken the movement:
~ ankles—while sitting on the edge of a bed or chair, rotate both together in both clockwise and counter-clockwise directions;
~ knees—bring feet and knees together, hands to knees and rotate reversing the direction halfway through. As you get more familiar with the knees, reduce the circles to tiny, nearly invisible movements in order to clear the joints better.
~ hips—bring feet wide apart and hands to hips and make wide circles with the hips, again reversing direction halfway through. As with knees, as your joints get freer, reduce the circles until you barely move the spine as you move the hips.
~ waist and chest—hands still on hips, making circles with the chest and ribcage. Again, with time, you can reduce the movement.
~ wrists—start with the hands in a gentle fist, then it's possible to add the fingers; think of a flamenco dancer.
~ elbows—make circles the hands and forearms.
~ shoulders—swing both loose, straight arms around in wide, energetic circles in both directions;
~ head and neck—especially gently: before rotating the head it can help to stretch the neck forward and then back; start with the chin resting on the chest and roll around slowly in each direction.
In the joint rotations it is useful to inhabit the joint you are freeing up, and to activate the movement from that place. You could notice how the rest of the body responds. Very often, in certain movements, we tense muscles habitually, moving with more effort than is required for the movement. For example, we may grip our jaw and tighten our eyes when rotating our neck, or grip inner thighs and lower belly when moving our pelvis. Gentle awareness of these tendencies increases our sensitivity and we can learn to move with more intelligence, joy and ease.
4. Arms raised breath. Still standing and if it happens to be sunrise, then receiving the sunlight's freshness, place feet about hip distance apart and arms by the side. Suck in your belly as you breathe out as gently and deeply as possible with both arms bent and with elbows nearly shoulder height and palms facing forward and upward.
Stretch the arms up as you breathe in, then hold the breath in as you pull or receive energy down the hands and arms and into your spine.
5. 'Skiing' squats. Begin in a standing position with your feet near each other. Swing your arms straight out in front of you, palms down. In one vigorous motion, sweep your arms down and back while bending both knees (as if snow skiing). Then bring the arms back to your starting position while straightening the legs. Swing the arms forward and back before squatting down again. Repeat five times. If knees are tender, start more gently and let the energy build.
6. Optional forward bend. Standing with legs about hip width apart and hands by the sides, slowly tilt your pelvis back while moving the chest and arms forward and down. Your back should be straight but not rigid. At waist level begin to bring your hands to the ground and let your head be heavy. Place your hands on the ground beside your feet with the head down, bending the knees generously if necessary. Head, neck and shoulders are relaxed. Hold for several breaths.
Resting on the back. Lie down and relax completely, with your belly to the sky, your legs slightly apart and your feet gently opening to the sides. Your arms are loose and a bit away from your sides. Make a simple 'half-opened flower' gesture with your hands by bringing your thumb part of the way towards the four fingers. Close your eyes and take a few moments to scan the body for any tension, relaxing as you go deeper into the pose.
7. Knee to abdomen. Lie down on a mattress or soft surface. Flex your feet until your lower back lengthens and relaxes. Then point toes away from you until you feel the front, upper thighs relax and become spacious. Then, "with permission" from your body, slowly bend left knee and bring it towards the abdomen and chest. Press the left heel into the inner right leg as the left foot travels up. Feel the whole body respond to each micro-movement. (This is a good example of how you can invest time for several months making a gentle connection with your body, and later on you will be able to keep the connection as you move more quickly.) Clasp your hands on top of and below the knee, press your thigh into your abdomen, and raise your head to your knee. Then lift the right leg off the floor if possible. Hold for several breaths and release slowly. Repeat with right leg. Flex and point toes again twice and repeat knee bend with both legs together.
8. Roll. Bring your thighs to your chest and hold the outer shins (or thighs) with your hands. Begin to roll backwards and forwards, gently massaging the spine. As you roll, notice if the back feels stuck anywhere and massage by rolling at that point. Then, with your feet together and your knees apart, hold onto your ankles and roll on the spine a few more times. Feel the stretch through the base of the neck and shoulders as you pull up.
Rest on your back again.
9. Rocking the boat. There are several ways to do this exercise. Here, we will present the most challenging first: lie with your lower back on the floor and with head, chest, and both legs off the floor. Then, leading with the chest and head, rock and roll the whole body forward and up, and then back to and through the starting position 5-10 times.
An easier, but still challenging, variation: Sitting upright with attention firmly resting in the abdomen, balance on the sitting bones and begin to lift legs in the air. Beka, a yoga facilitator in the UK, recommends: "sit with legs straight out in front and feet together. Make sure you can feel the contact between your sitting bones and the floor. You can help this by taking the buttock flesh out and back with your hands. Bring legs up 60 degrees, and at the same time lean your upper body back 45 degrees. Have your arms straight out, parallel to the floor and with the palms facing each other. You should be balancing on your sit bones and not on the lower spine." Hold for 23 breaths and release.
Easier variations: You may modify this rather challenging pose by bending the knees and/or holding the legs with the forearms behind the thighs. Stack your forearms one on top of the other just under the back of the knee. Clasp the outer thighs with the hands, making sure to avoid rolling onto the lumbar spine. Keep the connection between your sitting bones and the floor and maintain a lift through the chest and a straight back. Hold for several breaths and release.
10. Bicycle. Lying on your back bring one leg up with bent knee while the other leg extends out away from you, and 'cycle' 10-30 times in each direction. Your hands can rest on the base of the ribcage. If you feel a strain on your back bring your legs closer to your chest, place the hands palm face down under the hips, or skip this exercise.
11. Side-to-side twists. Draw the knees towards the main body and gently rock both bent legs together into a spinal twist to each side.
Then, as you rock the knees towards the left, stretch out the right leg and press the heel away from you as the right big toe drops towards the floor on your left, at about the level of the hips. Then repeat with the left leg towards the right.
12. Leg circles. Circle your bent left leg 5 times, and then straighten the leg and tap the floor near the right ankle 3 times. Repeat with the right leg. Then Circle again with the bent left leg 5 times and tap the floor near the right shoulder. Then do a gentle "high kick." Repeat with the right leg.
Rest on your back again.
Lying on the belly:
13. Shoulder Stand and Plough.
Shoulder Stand ~ Note: most yoga teachers observe that this posture is better not done during a woman's menstrual period. Beginning on your back with palms facing down alongside your body, engage your belly muscles, and, while grounding with the arms, raise both legs together (or one at a time) overhead, keeping them straight. As your legs near a vertical position, carefully move your hands to either side of your lower spine, just above the sacrum, while shifting your elbows under your shoulders one at a time. Still engaging the core muscles, and with the help now of the hands, bring the hips to align with the shoulders. The feet are over the hips, pointing gently. The neck is relaxed, and the chin tilts slightly toward the chest to stimulate the thyroid gland. The gaze is toward the navel. Hold for several breaths.
Variations: Another more gentle way to enter the pose is by bending the knees, rocking the legs back and catching the hips in the hands. Then extend the legs overhead.
If the fully vertical position is too difficult, try starting in plough pose (see below) and from there raising the legs only as far as 45 degrees to the floor while holding the lower back either with palms to either side of the spine or around the waist. Or even just lying on your back with both legs raised, bent simply at the hips, and feet pointing up.
You may also find it helpful to support the shoulders with a folded blanket as a prop. Fold a blanket in thirds and place it under your shoulders. Make sure that neither your head or neck rests on the blanket, just your shoulders.
Plough Pose ~ After several breaths in shoulder stand, begin to lower the legs overhead–"with permission"–until your toenails touch the floor behind you (you may bend your legs if necessary). If you can keep your legs straight, let your feet rest to the left side of your head, then slowly move your legs to the right of your head. The arms may rest on the floor palm down and parallel, or you may clasp the hands under the back. Hold for a few breaths. If this is challenging, lower one leg down overhead and then the other.
To break the pose, engage the belly muscles, and moving slowly, one vertebra at a time, bring the legs down to the floor with feet together. Try not to strain the neck or grip your jaw as you move: keep the shoulders flat on the ground and the neck relaxed. The effort is with the core muscles, working together with the momentum of the legs.
Rest on your back again.
14. Backbend. (See the "bridge" and other variations below for a more gradual way towards backbend. Avoid this pose if you are pregnant or have chronic back pain.) Begin by lying on your back. Bend your knees and bring the heels about six to eight inches from the sit bones. Lift both arms straight up overhead, palms facing forward. Lower the hands to the floor just next to the ears, fingertips facing the shoulders.
Using your leg muscles and the firm foundation of your hands and feet to push down, arch the full back body by raising the hips. Let the head be heavy. Try to avoid splaying the knees and elbows so that your back is protected, and keep the feet parallel. It helps to imagine the movement coming from the navel rather than from your back and gently drawing the knees towards each other. The buttocks muscles should remain soft as you maintain a steady, calm breath. Modify the pose as suggested below if you feel any back pain at all.
Hold for a few breaths and slowly lower down. (Bring your knees to your chest and clasp your arms around the shins for a nice counter pose, if you need to.)
Variations: Bridge and half-wheel ~ Backbends can be quite challenging, and if you are new to yoga you might want to begin with bridge pose or half-wheel, both modified versions of the full backbend. For Bridge, begin by lying on your back. Bend your knees and bring the heels about six to eight inches from the sit bones. Keeping the feet parallel, raise the hips and then the upper body off the ground. Bring the arms beneath the spine with hands clasped. Keep the chin and pelvis tucked.
To do a half-wheel, begin like the full back-bending pose but as you arch the back body from the hips, roll gently onto the crown of the head.
Rest on your back again.
Then roll over to lie on your belly:
15. Cobra. Beka: "Lying on your stomach, bring an intention of softness to your lower spine. Encourage your tailbone to move downwards without causing tightness. Place your palms on the floor by the middle of your chest with your fingers pointing forwards. Breathe in and press into your hands, allowing your chest to come up, noticing where the arching of the spine begins. Encourage the shoulders to drop and the chest to stay open. The actual bend of the spine comes from the point between the shoulder blades and not from the lower back." Carefully look over your shoulder towards your feet, first the left and then the right.
Feel the spine uncurl as you come back down.
Repeat one more time if you wish.
Resting on the front. If you have finished a posture and are lying face down on your belly (after "cobra" and "wheel"), then lie your arms by your sides, sliding your palm face up under your upper thighs, put your forehead on the map, again closing your eyes, and relaxing as repeated above.
16. Bow Pose. (Avoid this pose if you are pregnant or have chronic back pain). Lying on your belly on a soft surface with your legs slightly apart, bring your chin to the floor and find a gentle extension of the body. Bending at the knee, and keeping the feet flexed, reach for the outside of the ankles with your hands (hands may be higher on the shin if this position is challenging) with the thumbs facing down. Begin to lift your chin, chest and knees by pressing the legs strongly into the hands and using that leverage to bring the support of the body to the abdomen. Soften your shoulders down away from your ears, and be careful not to overstrain your back. Find the tilt in your pelvis that seems to best support the lower back and allows you to lift comfortably. Hold for a few breaths.
Variation: A modification is to do this with one leg at a time.
Rock vigorously first to the left and then to right.
Variation: Still holding bow pose, begin encouraging your body to rest on your left side. Your first steps in this direction might be through visualization! Over time, begin to roll your body to the left, eventually resting in bow pose on your left side. Hold for a few breaths, and come back to center. Repeat on the right side.
Rest on your front again.
17. Circular push-ups. (Downward Dog and Upward Dog.) Beginning with hands and knees on the floor, hands shoulder distance apart and knees directly under the hips, come into a downward dog position by curling the toes, raising the hips up and back while straightening the arms and legs.
Encourage your heels to move downward but do not strain the hamstrings. If straightening the legs is too challenging, feel free to keep the knees slightly bent to maintain a firm foundation with the feet. Distribute the weight evenly and easily between the palms of the hands and the feet. Keep the chest light and moving gently toward the front thighs. Roll the shoulders away from your ears.
Move slowly into an upward dog through plank position: straightening the legs, move the chest forward until the shoulders are directly over the hands. Keeping the feet flexed, continue to move the chest forward into upward dog by dropping the hips and lifting the head.
Repeat the cycle 5 times.
Beginners or delicate backs: In downward dog, bend your knees as much as you like to keep a feeling of balance and ease. It is perfectly fine to place your knees on the ground while coming through to a modified upward dog if you find the movement from plank position to be too strenuous or hard on the back. Likewise, feel free to keep the arms slightly bent while doing the three bounces; however take care to keep the chest moving forward as you bend the arms.
Come to sitting.
The sitting postures:
18. Alternate nostril breathing. While sitting, kneeling, or in any sitting position you like, bend the index and middle fingers of your right hand down, so that only the thumb and ring finger are in use, with the little finger riding along with the ring finger. Breathe out completely. Press your right nostril closed with your thumb and place your ring finger between your eyebrows. Breathe in deeply and gently through your left nostril. Now press your left nostril closed with your right ring finger and release your right nostril, moving the thumb to rest between your eyebrows. Breathe gently and deeply out through the right nostril.
Variation: Continue the above with the following: Breathe gently in through your right nostril. Move your fingers again, releasing the left nostril and placing the ring finger between the eyebrows, and closing the right nostril with your thumb. Breathe out through the left nostril. Let the breath be smooth and subtle. As you get used to the exercise, you can also start to feel or imagine energy "trickling" and traveling up and down each side of the spine with the breath: up the left side of the spine with the in-breath through the left nostril, down the right side of the spine with the out-breath through the right nostril, etc.
19. The cat. Bend your knees and kneel, sitting back between your feet. If your feel strain in the knees or hips, place a block or blanket just under the sit bones, or try the variations of this exercise (see below). Feel the back straight and relaxed. Tune in to the base of your spine, until you feel the beginning of movement forward. Stay connected to the base of the spine throughout this movement. Allow your slightly arching back to sweep your upper body, arms, and hands forward and gently down towards the ground. Continue the swinging motion as you arch up, lift the head and chin with an open throat towards the position you started from. Repeat one more time.
Variations (choose the above OR one of the variations):
1) Bend your knees and kneel, sitting back between your feet. If your feel strain in the knees or hips, place a block or blanket just under the sit bones, or try the variations of this exercise (see below). Feel the back straight and relaxed. Tune in to the base of your spine, until you feel the beginning of movement forward. Stay connected to the base of the spine throughout this movement. Allow your slightly arching back to sweep your upper body, arms, and hands forward and gently down towards the ground. Place your hands on the floor about shoulder distance apart and, keeping your knees on the ground, lift your hips and feet while moving your chest and chin forward through the space between your arms until your chin comes near or touches the ground.
Then, supported on your hands and bent arms, and still forward of your starting place, begin to come up slowly with the spine arched up and forward so it pulls you back up. Reverse the arch gently with the chin slightly down and chest pulled towards the forward-curving back as you continue to return to the starting sitting position. Head comes up last. Feel as if the lower spine is guiding the whole movement. Repeat one more time.
If this position is too much on the knees then:
~ Try sitting on top of a small cushion or folded blanket.
~ Or, do the 2nd alternate cat: Kneel with legs parallel and close together but not touching. Breathing in, imagine a balloon expanding in your upper abdomen, and let this area initiate movement. Let the "balloon" expand until your back arches slightly back, your neck and head stretch up and back. Maintaining the arch and the connection with the "balloon" and the base of the spine, allow your upper body to bend forward until your chin touches the ground. Feel as if the "balloon" is guiding the movement. Slowly come up, feeling the balloon pull you up. The head is still arched back when you sit up, and then comes back to normal at the end. Let the breath find its own rhythm. Repeat 2 more times.
20. Eyes. Sit or kneel in any comfortable position. Rub palms together until they are warm and press gently over open eyes several times. Circle your eyes under the warm palms, as if to let the warmth enter all the corners of the eye. Remove palms and make circles with your eyes again, looking in a range as wide as your eyes can see. Repeat several times in both directions.
21. Optional: "Ajay's famous belly reducing excercises." Lie on your back with legs outstretched. Lift your left leg to vertical and, keeping it relatively straight (if possible), make a large circle, as if you were drawing a circle around you with your foot. Repeat 5 times and lower the leg slowly to the ground to the right of you at hip level. Tap the floor 3 times. Again circle and tap up near your right ankle, and then circle and tap near the right shoulder. Repeat the sequence with your right leg and foot.
22. Rest in any position for as long as you like. To begin with, you can try to "see" the person you love most from the place between the eyebrows. It will be a different kind of seeing, not imagination or visualization.
1. First morning breath (20 times).
3. Joint Rotations (about 5 times each direction each joint).
4. Arms raised breath(once).
5. 'Skiing' squats (5 times).
6. Optional forward bend.
* Resting on the back.
7. Knee to abdomen.
* Rest on your back again.
9. Rocking the boat. (2 times.)
11. Side-to-side twists.
12. Leg circles.
* Rest on your back again.
13. Shoulder Stand and Plough.
* Rest on your back again.
Then roll over to lie on your belly:
15. Cobra. (1 or 2 times.)
* Rest on the front.
16. Bow Pose.
* Rest on your front again.
17. Circular push-ups (5 times). (similar to Downward Dog and Upward Dog)
Come to sit or kneel for the sitting asana:
18. Alternate nostril breathing.
19. The cat (2-3 times).
20. Eyes (3 circles in each direction).
21. Optional: "Ajay's famous belly-reducing exercises."
22. Rest in any position as long as you like.